Could Your Hospital Make You Sick?

How to stay healthy in the hospital. 

Closeup shot of an elderly man holding his wife's hand while she is ill in the hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 722,000 hospital-acquired infections occur each year.

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Victoria Nahum thought 2006 had just been a really bad year. After years of suffering symptoms including fatigue, sore muscles and rashes, Nahum’s doctors identified the source of her malaise: Her left breast implant was coated in slime that was the result of a staph infection on the implant from when it had been placed six years earlier in Macon, Georgia.

Six months later, Nahum’s son Josh fractured his skull in a sky diving accident in Longmont, Colorado, landing in an Intensive Care Unit there. He was recovering well – until he contracted a bacterial infection in his cerebrospinal fluid that pushed his brain onto his spinal cord, turning him into a quadriplegic before killing him.

That same year, Nahum’s father-in-law contracted pneumonia during his hospitalization for a heart attack in Rochester, New York.

After the initial shock of her son’s death wore off, Nahum says that she started to put the puzzle pieces together. “I went to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and said, ‘What is this?’ It can’t just be a coincidence that three of us were harmed in a year,” she says.

With CDC support, Nahum, 58, who lives in Atlanta, started the Safe Care Campaign, which works with hospitals throughout the nation to prevent hospital-acquired infections.

[Read: How to Keep Your Loved One Safe in the Hospital.]

The Risk of HAIs

The CDC released data in March showing that 1 in 25 hospital patients in the U.S. is at risk of developing an HAI, and an estimated 721,800 occur annually. Scott Fridkin, the deputy surveillance branch chief in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC, calls this “a fairly huge problem,” adding that there’s some evidence that HAI occurrence has decreased. The most common infections, Fridkin says, are pneumonia, diarrhea and urinary tract infections.

The real issue is that hospitals are full of germs, and patients invariably pass infections on to each other – if not directly, then through the doctors and nurses with whom they come into contact. Patients can also contract infections from bacteria that live on devices like catheters.

Nahum’s son Joshua most likely developed his infection from bacteria living on the tube leading to his brain during his ventriculostomy, a surgical procedure that relieves swelling in the brain. Nahum’s own infection occurred during her breast implant surgery.

While controlling the spread of bacterial infections during surgery is usually not feasible for patients, there are certain measures they can take during their hospital stays to minimize their risk of infection.

[Read: Do You Really Need That Antibiotic?]

4 Things Patients Can Do to Prevent HAIs

  • “Hand hygiene is the basic foundation of all safe care,” Nahum says. “That’s how you pass germs around, so wash your hands frequently – and that means the doctor, nurse and friends because that’s how you are going to get infected. Patients have to know that it’s OK to say ‘Please wash your hands before you touch me.’” Soap and water will do the trick, and that combo trumps hand sanitizer, which does not kill clostridium difficile, commonly known as C. diff, a bacterial infection that causes severe diarrhea. Gloved hands also need to be washed.
  • Communicate with your health care team, Fridkin says. “Patients should ask every day if they still need the invasive devices that they may be using,” including central lines and urinary catheters. Also ask if prescribed antibiotics are really necessary, since antibiotic resistance is one of the causes of circulating bacterial infections – and that occurs because of over-usage of certain antibiotics, Fridkin explains. If your antibiotic is truly necessary, he adds, take it as prescribed and report any adverse effects.
  • Choose your visitors well. Bring an advocate with you to the hospital – be it a friend or loved one – “someone who can kind of be the eyes and ears that you don’t have at the moment,” Nahum says. At the same time, leave anyone who is frail or sick at home, and same goes for children. “I would say to anybody walking into the hospital, ‘Be prepared because germs are there.’ I wouldn’t take my sick grandfather or little kids.” Visitors also need to be vigilant about washing hands because infections can travel outside of the hospital, putting others at risk. C.diff and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, are both on the rise in people who have never been hospitalized.
  • Do your homework on hospitals and choose wisely. Nahum says that hospitals have become more accountable about reporting their rates of HAIs, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, through its Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting Program, provides incentives for compliant hospitals. Medicare’s “Hospital Compare” website contains this comparative information. State health departments are also a good source of information on hospitals’ infection rates. 

[Read: What Your Doctors Wish You Knew.]